Bill Gates describes himself as a technocrat. But he does not believe that technology will save the world. Or, to be more precise, he does not believe it can solve a tangle of entrenched and interrelated problems that afflict humanity’s most vulnerable: the spread of diseases in the developing world and the poverty, lack of opportunity and despair they engender. “I certainly love the IT thing,” he says. “But when we want to improve lives, you’ve got to deal with more basic things like child survival, child nutrition.”
Are there words that are universally understood, across all countries and cultures? A team of linguists has proposed one: “huh.”
In a paper published on Friday in the journal PLOS One, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands announced that they had found strikingly similar versions in languages scattered across five continents, suggesting that “Huh?” is a universal word.
The study, conducted by Mark Dingemanse, Francisco Torreira and Nick Enfield, closely examined variations of the word — defined as “a simple syllable with a low-front central vowel, glottal onset consonant, if any, and questioning intonation” — in 10 languages, including Dutch, Icelandic, Mandarin Chinese, the West African Siwu and the Australian aboriginal Murrinh-Patha.
The researchers also looked at other words and expressions used to elicit clarification during conversation, a function that linguists refer to as “other-initiated repair.” But only “Huh?,” they write, occurs across languages whose phonetic patterns otherwise vary greatly.
I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons – a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn't read. And certainly couldn't read for pleasure.
It's not one to one: you can't say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are very real correlations.
And I think some of those correlations, the simplest, come from something very simple. Literate people read fiction.
Fiction has two uses. Firstly, it's a gateway drug to reading. The drive to know what happens next, to want to turn the page, the need to keep going, even if it's hard, because someone's in trouble and you have to know how it's all going to end … that's a very real drive. And it forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going. To discover that reading per se is pleasurable. Once you learn that, you're on the road to reading everything. And reading is key. There were noises made briefly, a few years ago, about the idea that we were living in a post-literate world, in which the ability to make sense out of written words was somehow redundant, but those days are gone: words are more important than they ever were: we navigate the world with words, and as the world slips onto the web, we need to follow, to communicate and to comprehend what we are reading. People who cannot understand each other cannot exchange ideas, cannot communicate, and translation programs only go so far.
The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them.
It seems like every week someone tells us how the internet and the digital age are overloading our brains. Sure, sometimes it feels like we're being fed more information than we can handle, that we're paying attention to the wrong things. Are we giving our brain a fair shot?
Another great episode of It's Okay To Be Smart exploring some science that show how paying attention can be a bad thing, and then some science about how paying attention can be a very helpful thing.
Continuing my suggestions of books to read this summer I share with you the novels of Max Barry.
I'm always fascinated by people in creative fields that are adamant to the idea of reading fiction. There you are having a casual conversation, you suggest a novel you think they will find interesting and they strongly oppose the idea. They don't read fiction (often they also say they never watch tv or attend any live performances.)
And while I can see why anyone would think that somehow things like reading fiction are just entertainment and could not possibly lend themselves to teach us anything, what kind of creative work could they be creating when they deprive themselves of the enjoyment (and education) of watching someone manipulate language to convey messages in ways that are often profound and revealing.
Besides, the more we study the brain, they more we learn how important fiction can be in neurological development.
This is why I am recommending the novels of Max Barry. He is an astute observer of life and has tackled subjects dear to me (and this blog) in his novels. From marketing, advertising and branding to management, leadership and productivity to, in his latest novel, released today, poetry, language and influence. Each written with clear insights and full of enjoyable surprises. If you are interested in those areas there is much to be learned from his novels, while having a great deal of fun.
At an exclusive school somewhere outside of Arlington, Virginia, students aren’t taught history, geography, or mathematics—at least not in the usual ways. Instead, they are taught to persuade. Here the art of coercion has been raised to a science. Students harness the hidden power of language to manipulate the mind and learn to break down individuals by psychographic markers in order to take control of their thoughts. The very best will graduate as “poets”: adept wielders of language who belong to a nameless organization that is as influential as it is secretive.
Whip-smart orphan Emily Ruff is making a living running a three-card Monte game on the streets of San Francisco when she attracts the attention of the organization’s recruiters. She is flown across the country for the school’s strange and rigorous entrance exams, where, once admitted, she will be taught the fundamentals of persuasion by Brontë, Eliot, and Lowell—who have adopted the names of famous poets to conceal their true identities. For in the organization, nothing is more dangerous than revealing who you are: Poets must never expose their feelings lest they be manipulated. Emily becomes the school’s most talented prodigy until she makes a catastrophic mistake: She falls in love.
Meanwhile, a seemingly innocent man named Wil Jamieson is brutally ambushed by two strange men in an airport bathroom. Although he has no recollection of anything they claim he’s done, it turns out Wil is the key to a secret war between rival factions of poets and is quickly caught in their increasingly deadly crossfire. Pursued relentlessly by people with powers he can barely comprehend and protected by the very man who first attacked him, Wil discovers that everything he thought he knew about his past was fiction. In order to survive, must journey to the toxically decimated town of Broken Hill, Australia, to discover who he is and why an entire town was blown off the map.
As the two narratives converge, the shocking work of the poets is fully revealed, the body count rises, and the world crashes toward a Tower of Babel event which would leave all language meaningless. Max Barry’s most spellbinding and ambitious novel yet, Lexicon is a brilliant thriller that explores language, power, identity, and our capacity to love—whatever the cost.
Scientist Charles Neumann loses a leg in an industrial accident. It's not a tragedy. It's an opportunity. Charlie always thought his body could be better. He begins to explore a few ideas. To build parts. Better parts.
Prosthetist Lola Shanks loves a good artificial limb. In Charlie, she sees a man on his way to becoming artificial everything. But others see a madman. Or a product. Or a weapon.
A story for the age of pervasive technology, Machine Man is a gruesomely funny unraveling of one man's quest for ultimate self-improvement.
Stephen Jones is a shiny new hire at Zephyr Holdings. From the outside, Zephyr is just another bland corporate monolith, but behind its glass doors business is far from usual: the beautiful receptionist is paid twice as much as anybody else to do nothing, the sales reps use self help books as manuals, no one has seen the CEO, no one knows exactly what they are selling, and missing donuts are the cause of office intrigue. While Jones originally wanted to climb the corporate ladder, he now finds himself descending deeper into the irrational rationality of company policy. What he finds is hilarious, shocking, and utterly telling.
Taxation has been abolished, the government has been privatized, and employees take the surname of the company they work for. It's a brave new corporate world, but you don't want to be caught without a platinum credit card--as lowly Merchandising Officer Hack Nike is about to find out. Trapped into building street cred for a new line of $2500 sneakers by shooting customers, Hack attracts the barcode-tattooed eye of the legendary Jennifer Government. A stressed-out single mom, corporate watchdog, and government agent who has to rustle up funding before she's allowed to fight crime, Jennifer Government is holding a closing down sale--and everything must go.
A wickedly satirical and outrageous thriller about globalization and marketing hype, Jennifer Government is the best novel in the world ever.
When Scat comes up with the idea for the hottest new soda ever, he's sure he'll retire the next rich, savvy marketing success story. But in the treacherous waters of corporate America there are no sure things--and suddenly Scat has to save not only his idea but his yet-to-be-realized career. With the help of the scarily beautiful and brainy 6, he sets out on a mission to reclaim the fame and fortune that, time and again, eludes him. This brilliantly scathing debut is a hilarious send-up of celebrity, sexual politics, corporate America, and the fleeting status that comes with getting to the table first--before the other guy has you for lunch.